Always happy to follow policy, architects with an interest in sustainability are today proposing eco-back-to-backs as “affordable” housing. The housing form that John Burns opposed is re-imagined as the future for subsidised housing, crammed into expensive brownfield sites. (15) These homes will get planning permission. Architects will happily delude themselves that they are designing a double-density world devoted to an age of “eco-equality”. – Audacity

The AJ from November 2012 brought unwelcome news of yet more modern back to backs passed for planning, this time in Manchester.  A strong residents association in Hammersmith and Fulham successfully fought off a similar scheme by Peter Barber in the last couple of years at 282/292 Goldhawk Road but sadly a smaller version will be built in North Kensington and unless a similar group exists in Manchester these C19th dwellings will be built as designed. (paywall or just delete AJ cookies to read it)

Jump to Analysis of single and dual aspect dwellings.

Planning details

Reference: 098216/FO/2011/C1
Alternative Reference: PP-01616839
Application Received: 28 Dec 2011
Address: 1 Ellesmere Street Castlefield Manchester M15 4JY
Proposal: Redevelopment of vacant land with a residential scheme comprising 71 dwellings with associated car parking and amenity space.
Status: Application Approved

I’ve linked the plans for your convenience -> Ellesmere plans

Aerial view of site courtesy of Google Earth

Click image for wider view

Practice co-founder Matt Ollier said: ‘The back-to-back house has been overlooked as an alternative to urban housing for too long. [The model] was the most economical way to accommodate the influx of people drawn from the countryside to power Britain’s industry. However, the houses were often built quickly and at a low standard with no gas, electricity or drainage.”

He conveniently omits to mention the full history of back to backs however including the reason that they ceased to be built in most of the United Kingdom during the C19th and then only in Leeds until 1937.

Historical note

A number of cities used local powers to stop building back-to-backs. In Manchester and Liverpool, for example, back-to-backs were banned in 1844 and 1861 respectively; no plans for back-to-backs were approved for Bradford after 1870; and in Birmingham they were banned in 1876.

The debate resulted in a national ban on back-to-backs under the terms of the 1909 Housing and Town Planning Etc Act. In Leeds there was opposition to this national legislation; and a loophole in the Act permitted certain plans with prior approval to continue to be built. The last back-to-back in Leeds was built in 1937.


Click photo for wider view of plot

Matt Ollier continues:- This house type has remained unfairly tarnished. But advances in Building Regulations remove problems previously associated with them. Extending accommodation over four floors reduces the building footprint and increases density and insulating party walls gives a U-value of zero on three sides.’

There are two major problems with back to backs which these scheme fails to address, that of cross ventilation and lack of sunlight to North facing back-to-backs.

A sunlight study I did some years ago for an office residential conversion at Bletchley by A2Dominion serves as good illustration of the sunlight limitations likely to suffered by the residents of the dwellings on the side facing North North West.

Even when sunlight should reach them at mid-summer they will be shadowed by the buildings immediately to the North and so have the worst of all possible worlds, North facing and shadowed.  Really this is a blighted design that badly needs rethinking.

I think a comparison needs to be made with the (now abandoned) proposal by Peter Barber Architects to build a “Mediterranean Village” (their words not mine) at 282 Goldhawk Road.  Dezeen wrote an article about it linked here:-

and some of the comments are very telling referring to the difficulty of living in a vertical flat.


Who wants a 69 sq m apartment divided on 4 floors? 25% of the apartment is stairs….”

I love the sketches and the friendly little public spaces, but I’m not impressed by the “typical residence” plans. The stairs really kill the potential for larger and more interesting interior spaces that could be accomplished through duplexing-triplexing-fourplexing houses together horizontally instead of vertically.

I find open area is as important a tool in the interior quality as the walls, and furniture and matierals…blah blah blah. Plus, that third storey bedroomer is going to be really mad when he forgets his/her glasses/keys/wallet upstairs…

The plans at the bottom of the page show what look to be cut-outs (removable floor panels) for a lift if required and on the first two floors, a bathroom, toilet and bedroom.  Lifetime home requirements would appear to have been achieved although this still leaves the able bodied majority running up and down stairs to answer the front door and to take out the rubbish.

I am left with the impression that while it may be preferable to have 71 dwellings on a site rather than the 198 proposed by . . .

“It replaces proposals for a 198-flat scheme by Roger Stephenson Architects.”

far better use of the site might have been achieved with dual aspect dwellings if not ordinary conventional ground floor flats with gardens and non-garden flats above.  When you look at the imagination and creativity used at 151 Church Walk (paywall) (or here)on a tight site then I can’t help thinking that something more imaginative might have been done with this, or Coin Street as another city centre example, where you have a large square (or rectangle to be pedantic) with housing around the perimeter.

Of course Ellesmere Street is by no means the only recent attempt at putting people in multi-storey back to back terraced housing, there are these ghastly things yet to be built in Brentford.

The difference is I think, and it’s an important one, that the Manchester scheme seems likely to actually start on site whereas Barber’s atrocity in Goldhawk Road has been abandoned, and the Alfa Laval scheme has been on hold for so long there’s no telling if it will ever be built.

Comment by Neil Deely (extract)

“So, the ‘back-to-back’ makes its return to the inner city after a long absence. Notable examples include schemes by Peter Barber’s studio and parts of Borneo-Sporenburg in Amsterdam. Traditionally used for its economy of construction and high-density, for all its perceived failings – lack of cross ventilation and sunlight – back-to-back building does provide a strong communal street frontage.” [my emphasis – Ed.]

It would be interesting to know whether more dual aspect homes could have been delivered through a greater variety of unit types. This is particularly true given that most private amenity space is on fourth and fifth floor rooftops, making dual aspect maisonettes more easily incorporated.

Neil Deely makes the case for dual aspect housing while stopping short of saying that the whole development ought to have been re-thought.

There may be a housing shortage but the biggest mistake that we as a society could make now is to water down standards and accept poor quality housing with the excuse that there isn’t enough so anything will do, especially not a return to the failures of the 19th century.

Analysis – download the spreadsheet

The bad news is that there are 13 North facing single aspect dwellings, listed below, details taken from the site plans.  The presence of a seven storey block of flats directly opposite, with shops below, makes the light situation worse than it might otherwise have been.

North side of Ellesmere Street showing seven storey flats and shops

Although reflected north light will make its way into the dwellings, they will necessarily be less well illuminated than they would have been had there been a clear aspect and on a dull winters day they are likely to be gloomy.

Unit  Type Typology Description
13   2D 4 sty 2 b  (956sqft) North facing single aspect
14   2D 4 sty 2 b  (956sqft) North facing single aspect
15   4F 4 sty 4 b  (1289sqft) North facing single aspect
16   4H 4 sty 4 b  (1235sqft) North facing single aspect
17   4G 4 sty 4 b  (1235sqft) North facing single aspect
18   4F 4 sty 4 b  (1289sqft) North facing single aspect
19   4F 4 sty 4 b  (1289sqft) North facing single aspect
20   4F 4 sty 4 b  (1289sqft) North facing single aspect
21   4H 4 sty 4 b  (1235sqft) North facing single aspect
22   4G 4 sty 4 b  (1235sqft) North facing single aspect
23   4F 4 sty 4 b  (1289sqft) North facing single aspect
24   2D 4 sty 2 b  (956sqft) North facing single aspect
25   2D 4 sty 2 b  (956sqft) North facing single aspect

The good news if you can call it that, is that on the South side of the rectangular site are ten dual aspect dwellings, or at least dual aspect from the first floor up since for some reason on the ground floor they are blind on the street side, i.e. have no windows. There are also four dual aspect on a corner dwellings type 2D although I have less sympathy for these since cross ventilation although possible is less successful than across the width of a building.

Unit  Type Typology Description
43   3C 3 sty 3 bed  (1010sqft) Dual aspect
44   3B 3 sty 3 bed  (990sqft) Dual aspect
45   3B 3 sty 3 bed  (990sqft) Dual aspect
46   3B 3 sty 3 bed  (990sqft) Dual aspect
47   3C 3 sty 3 bed  (1010sqft) Dual aspect
60   3C 3 sty 3 bed (1010sqft) Dual aspect
61   3B 3 sty 3 bed  (990sqft) Dual aspect
62   3B 3 sty 3 bed  (990sqft) Dual aspect
63   3B 3 sty 3 bed  (990sqft) Dual aspect
64   3C 3 sty 3 bed  (1010sqft) Dual aspect
01   2D 4 sty 2 bed  (956sqft) Dual aspect corner
12   2D 4 sty 2 bed  (956sqft) Dual aspect corner
26   2D 4 sty 2 bed  (956sqft) Dual aspect corner
37   2D 4 sty 2 bed  (956sqft) Dual aspect corner


View South from Ellesmere Street

Unit analysis

Before I begin it would appear from the elevations that they refer to the lane to the south of the development as Church View. Although I cannot confirm this from Google Maps I will take that as given and hereafter refer to it as such.

Plans Type 1A (16 of) and 1B(6 of)

Let’s start with 1B which is the smallest at 327sq ft an outdated unit now better expressed as 30.38 square metres. The smallest Parker Morris dwelling type is listed as 29.73sqm for one person and this just exceeds that but does not comply with the Interim_LHDG which states “Based on the space standards study (appendix 1), the recommended minimum area of a one person, one bedroom dwelling is 37 sq m where the dwelling has a shower room, and 39 sq m where the dwelling has a bathroom.” Since 1B has a shower room it would have been nice to see it reach 37sqm. There is no space for  a dining table so I can only presume the poor occupant is supposed to eat on his or her lap. The additional 6sqm indicated by the LHDG would have allowed for a dining table, and some necessary storage space.

1A has 37sq ft more than 1B owing to 1B having been set back, once again at 364sqft = 33.82sqm.  Also listed as a one bed it too fails to reach the LHDG minimum and also has a shower room not a bathroom but even given the extra space cannot achieve room for a dining table. It does however gain enough space in the bedroom to put a desk in the corner if so desired.  Even so these are hardly spacious dwellings.

They are not much better than large hotel rooms with a kitchenette attached. Hardly a place to call home.

Plans Type 3D (8 of)

Next in size the 3 bed Unit 3D at 883sqft ./ 82.03 sqm, appears only on the courtyard inside corners facing east or west where it will suffer from even less light than that available to the courtyard centre 1A or 3Bs.  Entering adjacent to the garage (though no connecting door I notice), straight ahead is the only storage space in the entire dwelling (apart from the built in wardrobes) tucked under the stairs.

We emerge on the first floor facing a void looking down on the entrance, a nice design feature it would have been in a larger dwelling but here space is so tight owing to the ever present stairs that it might better have been left as badly needed floor space for a computer desk or low level bookcase, albeit nothing higher owing to the need to conserve badly needed light in this single aspect dwelling.

Access to the first floor bath is badly compromised by having a built in wardrobe adjacent, you wouldn’t want to have mobility problems here, getting in and out of the bath is likely to be an exercise in acrobatics, cosy as it may be once you’re in.

The kitchen dining living space is the only one which works to my eye, the k/d separated as it is by the ever present stairs from the living room illuminated by the full height windows on to the roof terrace, although once again the whole thing is compromised by not having any opportunity to get light from both sides.

Since these things face either east or west it’s going to be a purchase choice of morning or afternoon light unlike in a more conventional dwelling where one could opt for morning light in the kitchen and afternoon light in the living room.

Plans Type 2D (10 of)

The 2D is a 4 storey 2 bed townhouse 956sqft or 88.815m² in todays terms. They make an appearance at the four corners of the plot adding four dual aspect townhouses to the mix, although to my mind a corner dual aspect dwelling is inferior to one that has air passing freely from one side to another such as units 43-47 and 60-64 facing Church View. There are also a few single aspect 2D dwellings again near the corners of the plot.

The available plans show only the single aspect layout which is a shame, here we have on the g/f entrance hall with void up to 1st flr level, bathroom and bed2/study presumably to satisfy Lifetime Homes, then up to the first, another bathroom (?) and bedroom this time one with some additional space although again I think in the absence of the void more floorspace might have been made available for better uses.

Up on the 2nd flr the strangest dining table layout I have ever seen, have you ever tried to sit at 90° to another person dining at the corner of a table?  It doesn’t work.  Showing six chairs at the table is ludicrous and unworkable. It’s a four seat table. Above us the void, again.

Up to the 3rd floor and into the living room and what do we find?  Another void, a waste of space which if left as floor would have allowed the three seat sofa to go back into the recess by the toilet and add to the living area. Once again, dark internal toilet, could they not have provided a window? After all it is on the daylight side of this single aspect dwelling.

Of the roof terrace I will say little.  It rains a lot in this country, hardly a substitute for a garden is it?

Plans Type 3E (2 of)

The 3E is 4 storey 2 bed townhouse 956sqft or 88.815m² in todays terms. These are rare. There are only two of them out of the 71 dwellings.  They make an appearance facing South and located on the North side of the courtyard, one in each.

G/f garage, internal toilet, storage under stairs, up to 1st/flr usual void looking down to entrance. Illuminated ensuite makes a welcome change, and south facing, although again I’d rather see that void used for a desperately needed cupboard.  Two cramped bedrooms and an internal bathroom.

2nd/flr better, with roof terrace and island kitchen, again notice how much space those stairs take from every floor and what a disaster vertical flats are.  The living room is lit only from the south and you’d have to move a sofa to use that dining table for four people. Cramped.

Roof terrace on top, in our climate?  They will get a few sunny days, overlooked by the occupants of the flats to the North.

Plans Type 3B (12 of)

Up a rung and we have 990sqft or 91.974sqm making an appearance both as single and dual aspect dwellings, single on the Ellesmere St side of the courtyards facing South, or facing both ways on the Church View side of the plot though curiously without ground floor windows here. Also odd to my eye is the limited fenestration on that elevation.  It may be South facing but our climate isn’t the best and Manchester is noted for its rain, blinds are available if an excess of sun is a problem and so I cannot understand the lack of windows on the South side especially in comparison with what has been done on the North elevation to allow as much light as possible into the poorly lit North facing single aspect dwellings.13 to 25.

Look at the section above.  Imagine you are watching TV when the door bell rings.  Two floors down, and two back up.  Two floors to carry the shopping up and two floors down for the rubbish once a week.  Vertical living is no picnic.

The six 3B units on Church View each have natural light to the 1st floor ensuite, something that with a little more thought could have been achieved on the ground floor with laminated glass in high level windows.  But no.  At that level the building presents a blank face to the street, very off-putting.

On the Ellesmere Street side no such luck for the inhabitants, the orientation is such that no natural light will reach their ensuites with the door closed.

Up on the second floor on Church View I find the drawing hard to read. Even the elevations don’t help. Can it be that the only natural light from the south is a thin strip for the stairwell?  What a lost opportunity!  Perhaps the architects have foreknowledge of a building going up between Chester Road and Church View.

Plans Type 3C (8 of)

We need to differentiate two groups of 3C type units, four dual aspect units are located on the Church View or southern side of the plot, and four in the some of the worst possible positions in corners of the courtyard, albeit South facing.  So compromised are they by their position and the shadowing of the adjacent 3D units that I doubt a sunlight study would give them more than a few hours sunlight a day, and the placing of them tucked Tetris like into the corner precludes the use of more windows because they are boxed in on three sides.

This part of the site really ought to have been left for lockable bicycle storage or communal bins, anything but a dwelling but no, the architects, determined to maximise the potential of every corner have instead made these dwellings.  Awful.

North facing single aspect townhouses Units 4F, 4G and 4H

All the remaining unit types on this plot, the largest in fact, are NNW facing multistorey back to backs.

Plans Type 4G (2 of)

These 4 storey 4 bed townhouses (1235sqft) or 114.74m² are located on Ellesmere Street facing tall buildings which will shadow them in mid summer when the afternoon and evening sun might otherwise be available to them from the West.

In on the g/f, home office to the right restricted in size owing to the presence of pedestrian access to the courtyard. Bedroom and bathroom to the left, void above to 1st.  Up on 1st, complete and utter waste of space putting in both a bathroom AND an ensuite on a small floor area when there’s one just downstairs.  The inhabitants could survive I’m sure with just the downstairs or just the upstairs bathroom perfectly well.  With little storage in the dwelling that space could be far better used.

Again that void. Why?  Is it for a lift for the disabled?  If so where does it get them, not to the kitchen that’s for sure.

Up on the 2nd kitchen and roof terrace, again that ridiculous 6(?) seater, four in practice dining table, and frankly a very cramped kitchen layout with little natural light.  These are poor excuses for homes.  This kitchen is on the second floor look at the section for this dwelling.

Shopping will have to be carried up two flights and rubbish taken down two flights, calls to the front door will have to be answered likewise. Vertical living is only for the fit, plus the increased risk of accidents with all those stair journeys.

On the 3rd/flr the living area is badly compromised by the void and the W.C. While it might be nice to have yet another toilet handy, the living room would have benefited greatly by having more space and this seems a sacrifice too far.

Plans Type 4H (2 of)

These 4 storey 4 bed townhouses (1235sqft) or 114.74m² are located on Ellesmere Street facing tall buildings which will shadow them in mid summer when the afternoon and evening sun might otherwise be available to them from the West.

The two 4H units are as per 4G only without a downstairs bathroom, just a W.C. owing to a pedestrian tunnel giving access to the courtyard.

Upstairs on the 1st the superfluous ensuite persists as do the void and W.C. up on the 3rd floor.

Plans Type 4F (5 of)

So we come at last to the largest of these dreadful dwellings, these again on the NNW face, gratuitous bathrooms and ensuites, the void & W.C. up on the 3rd.  Basically it’s as per 4G only it doesn’t suffer the squashed office because there is no pedestrian access to the courtyard cramping its style. If you ever want to see the sun though you’ll have to live on the roof terrace. Good luck with that.

Some years ago I came up with a list of desirable qualities for any new dwelling to possess.  I think these questions to both developer and residents are of some value here, especially for anyone considering living there.

Questions for the developer

  • Does every flat have at least enough outside space to fit a table and chairs for all occupants?
  • Are windows orientated east-west, north-south?
  • What is considered to be too close to neighbouring buildings as regards overlooking?
  • Is shared green space private to each building or open to the public?
  • What is the heating/air conditioning system?
  • What is the ratio of car parking to homes, and is this surface or underground?
  • How many homes are to be served by each entrance?
  • Are the homes to be built to Lifetime Homes standard?
  • What will be the minimum ceiling height in any part of the dwelling?
  • Is there anywhere secure and undercover to store a bicycle?

Questions for the residents

  • Is there an external window in front of the sink? (No internal kitchens)
  • Do the bathroom and toilet have an external window? (No internal bathroom and toilets)
  • Do you have adequate storage space for bucket, broom, stepladder, vacuum cleaner, iron & ironing board, drying rack?
  • Do all the doors to the rooms in your house or flat open into the room, except the cupboard doors?
  • If you have a room in the attic, is the window dormer or Velux? (Dormer is better)
  • Are your living room and bedroom windows half or full height and do you value being able to walk around with some degree of privacy? (No flats on show to the street)
  • Do you have a view from your property in more than one direction? (Single or dual aspect)


Thanks to a tweet from Owen Hatherley today (4/12/12) visitor numbers to this article have climbed and include the following so far as I can identify them from IP addresses:-

English Heritage – Chippenham

Fereday Pollard Architects Ltd

Institute for Public Policy Research

Manchester Metropolitan University

University of Westminster

London School of Business & Finance

Richard Hywel Evans Architects

Arts – The University of Bristol

Division of Psychology and Language Sciences

Plot analysis

Without visiting Manchester but from Google Earth Tools/Ruler/Line I make the plot 100m x 41m depending whether you think the line of parked cars are part of the site or not.  Unbelievably when you do the maths using this comes out to almost exactly 1 acre give or take few car parking spaces.

100m x 41m = 4100m²

1acre = 4046.9m²

4100m² – 4046.9m² = 53.1m²

Now 53.1sqm is not an insignficant error I’ll grant you but for the purposes of this crude exercise which may be summarised as “if we don’t want the back to backs what would you build instead?” then it’ll do. I’m sticking to old units to make the calculations easy.

Let’s get some figures on Density, fortunately I have a page handy, it’s linked from my blog and links to an excellent paper by Graham Towers. How many dwellings can we put on a 1 acre plot and how many people could live there?

Particularly influential was Patrick Abercrombie’s plan for London. This proposed a hierarchy of densities for new housing development: 200 persons per acre (ppa) at the centre, 136 in the inner areas descending through 100 and 75 ppa to 50 ppa at the periphery.

Given that the planners considered and rejected 198 flats I think we can safely say that with a minimum of one person per flat that would have come in at 200ppa or more likely, higher.  The planners passed 71 dwellings which taking the bed spaces as a reasonable indicator the theoretical occupancy passed for planning is 166 (see spreadsheet).

Further on in the Towers paper we find this:-

A more recent study by architect Harley Sherlock showed that three- or four-storey terraces of flats and maisonettes could be built to densities of 155-160 ppa (385-400 ppha) (Sherlock, 1991). This means that many traditional terraced streets, which, in London, are commonly 3 storeys and higher, achieve densities considerably in excess of many multi-storey housing estates.

which ties in with what Ollier Smurthwaite have designed, but not in a good way, because theirs are largely multi storey back to backs.

My hypothesis is that if housing were built only around the perimeter of a rectangular one acre plot, it could house 166 people without going too high with good space standards, and with the ground floor dwellings having either small gardens or providing a public square with parking, or both. From the table in the Towers paper:-

then it’s clearly going to have to be C1 4 storey flats because terraced houses aren’t going to provide enough  bed spaces for minimum density requirements in the city centre. My contention remains however, that they don’t have to be back to backs, they can be dual aspect flats.

Looking at this afresh:-

“It replaces proposals for a 198-flat scheme by Roger Stephenson Architects.”

Why on earth did the city planners not reject this while insisting that instead of 198 single aspect flats the architects came back with 99 dual aspect flats? Thus achieving attractive good quality housing instead of the mess due to start on site in February?  I cannot actually see anything wrong with the RSA design in those revised terms although access would have to have been altered by inserting regular cores.

You have been blocked from following this account at the request of the user. – @DTEstates  (the developer) Was it something I said?

One Response to “One Ellesmere Street – Forward to the C19th”

  1. Sam R Says:

    Thanks. I was actually looking into this development before I read your article. Not anymore.

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